It started as displacement activity, my immersion in the market mayhem of the summer of 2007. I was at home looking after my wife Sian Busby and our youngest child. Sian had just been diagnosed with a horrible cancer, and was recovering from radical surgery.
She did not want a fuss. And did not want our friends to know the seriousness of what had happened. So in the absence of being able to talk about it, I needed a distraction. So in the study across the hall from where Sian was convalescing, I tried to work out what the hell was happening in global debt markets.
What I needed to understand was the mounting mistrust of investors for all manner of what were called asset-backed securities, especially those manufactured from low quality loans to US home buyers, or subprime loans.
Gradually the penny dropped – well rather more than a penny – that investors and banks had been participating in mass delusion on a historic scale: for years they had been kidding themselves that unlimited loans could be made to Americans with inadequate and insecure incomes, and that clever financial engineering could magically eliminate the risks of those loans never being repaid.
The conceit was that total garbage could be transformed into wonderful safe investments via the alchemy of investment banking.
But the conceit became difficult to sustain when the underlying subprime loans started to go bad on a scale that none of the investors had been led to believe could ever happen.
From late July 2007 to August nervousness in markets gradually became panic. And the moment of truth was August 9 2007 – which should forever be honoured as Credit Crunch day, the official start of the worst banking crisis and associated recession of the modern era.
On August 9, I was at the hospital with Sian for her post-op chat with the consultant when the email of truth landed in my Blackberry inbox, from the French bank BNP. I read it and went “gulp”: here was a huge and sophisticated bank saying it was suspending all trading in a fund it had created, on the pretext that this fund included investments made out of subprime loans and it literally did not have a clue how to value them.
As someone who in my earlier years had spent an unhealthy length of time as a banking editor, I had to write about it. And the blog I wrote that day, and subsequent ones I wrote from home in August and early September about the unfolding disaster, felt at the time more important than most of the stuff I churn out, and they still do.
That was in part because I called the significance for the rest of us of what was happening. I saw that when banks could no longer raise money by selling loans as bonds, they would not be able to lend. And that therefore a markets freeze would soon be freezing entire economies – and we’d all be poorer.
The cause was a toxic cocktail of bankers’ greed, an ocean of cheap money, hapless regulation. The trigger – of the collapse of so many banks, Northern Rock, Lehman Bros, HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland, to list just a few, and the worst recession since the 1930s – was the asset-backed bond markets closing down, this day, a decade ago.
All our lives changed for the worse. That emailed press release from BNP lit the fuse. And I was about to embark on three years at the BBC when I was almost never off air, covering by far the biggest story of my life – and whose aftershocks are still the bread and butter of my life today as political editor at ITV.
But the thought I could not suppress as it all kicked off, and I fear is a kind of egoism, is that the horror unfolding for my wife – and our family – was also somehow being replicated in global markets. Except that I knew who to blame for the financial and economic disaster.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article was originally published on his Facebook page
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